In the Czech Republic, it seems impossible to drive more than half an hour without running up against some castle or chateau. Because of a plethora of border conflicts at the margins of the Austrian empire, along with Bohemia’s wealth and prosperity during Hapsburg rule, this part of the world built and kept a huge number of defensive fortresses – many of them later turned into country seats for affluent families. Most of these buildings were enlarged versions of earlier relics, left over from the times of Germanic, Swedish, Lithuanian, Polish and Russian conquests in the region. The Thirty Years War also spurred a rush of construction, and today it seems that there aren’t many places in Europe with more historic defenses than this country. Here’s magnificent Zamek Bitov, which we just happened to be driving past on our way to Telč.
Close to the border with Austria is this confoundingly elaborate fortress cum palace, Vranov Nad Dyji. We didn’t take the tour, but spent a few minutes marveling beside the road. In Telč, we did take a tour of the castle, but weren’t allowed to take photographs. Because there are so many buildings like this in Moravia and Bohemia, the tour was small and the rooms felt disused and dusty, opened up just for us. Requisite fixtures in any building like this: family heirlooms of questionable value, dented suits of armor, glass cases of collected weaponry, portraits of forgotten aristocracy and a few threadbare tapestries. Also, there’s always a ghost story.
Another castle we visited recently, Pernštejn, offered all of that – plus amazingly intact defenses and a still-surviving medieval air. Again, like most tourist sites in the Czech Republic, photography wasn’t allowed inside. Making things more difficult, the castle is surrounded by thick woods and was very difficult to take pictures of. Still, we fell in love with its towers, halls and blunt walls.
Built and extended in many stages between the 1280’s and the end of the sixteenth century, the castle is still very much a stone monument to the wartime periods that birthed it. Instead of rebuilding it when rock walls and old ramparts fell out of fashion, the family that owned Pernštejn ran out of money and let it be. Still, it was lived in until the beginning of the twentieth century, and was never allowed to become derelict or fall apart. Some of the interior rooms are actually quite strikingly appointed, though it doesn’t feel nearly as grand as some other homes.
The defensibility is largely reliant on two factors: the elevated foundation of the main keep and a series of interior passageways built to control access to the building. Resting high up on a rocky perch, the central stronghold features only one small door, set off a balcony about thirty feet above the ground. Attacking the entryway was made difficult by this strategic location, and the stairs leading up to it are vulnerable from above and easy to hold. Inside, a narrow, spiraling staircase leads from the door up to the main floors, forcing enemy soldiers to fight their way upwards one at a time. The steps winds clockwise, which made fighting with a weapon held in the right hand awkward on the way up, but advantageous for the defender. At the top of this staircase, the doorway is low and must be ducked through – which provides a last moment of vulnerability.
The advent of gunpowder weapons caused the owners of Pernštejn to enlarge the crenelated walls and to add a second tower complex further along the ridge. The idea was to make it more difficult for enemy ballistics to reach the main castle. This new, round defense was outfitted with lower and more open firing positions so that canons could be used from within. Steep embankments drop into the woods on either side of this point, which could be navigated on foot, but not with any kind of heavy equipment or larger weapon.